Saturday, March 21, 2015



I was never much of a fan of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I didn't enjoy it when Disney made it into the sleep-inducing animated feature, Alice in Wonderland (1951), and I enjoyed it even less when I read it as one of those books one feels obliged to read during childhood; like Huckleberry Finn, Toby Tyler, Treasure Island, et al. (well, I have to admit I actually liked Treasure Island a great deal). No doubt the reason for this can be traced to the misguided, although not unreasonable, expectation on my part that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was going to be a sweet, heartwarming fantasy along the lines of The Wizard of Oz
Upon reading it, however, I was more than a little shaken by just how far-from-wonder and how very close to nightmarish Carroll’s idea of a Wonderland turned out to be. In fact, what with Alice’s difficult-to-relate-to Victorian reserve; Carroll’s often confounding word riddles and flexible logic; and particularly John Tenniel’s unsettling-bordering-on-grotesque illustrations (think the original Broadway poster art for Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd); Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland proved itself a fitting exemplar of the contrary nature of Wonderland by managing somehow to be simultaneously soporific and horrific.

It was only many years later, when a college class brought about my having to revisit the book, did I ultimately come to appreciate the sophisticated wit and literary ingeniousness of Carroll’s Alice, her surreal fantasy world, and its eccentric inhabitants. Apparently my childhood frustration with the material stemmed from assuming the word "wonder" in Wonderland alluded to the word "wonderful"; not (as I should have known from personal experience) bewilderment and confusion..."curiouser and curiouser" indeed.

But appreciating a book still is a far cry from actually enjoying it.
Feeling as I did, small wonder (heh, heh) it took no less esteemed and idolized a personage than Meryl Streep to get me anywhere near Wonderland again.
Meryl Streep as Alice Pleasance Liddell (seven and a half, exactly)

First broadcast on NBC in January of 1982 under the network’s Project Peacock banner (a series of prime-time specials for children), Alice at the Palace is a pared-down, 90-minute adaptation of a theatrical piece Streep first starred in back in 1978. Then titled Wonderland in Concert, this original “concert drama” with book, music, and lyrics by Tony-nominee Elizabeth Swados (Runaways), started out as a bare-bones Joseph Papp / New York Shakespeare Festival workshop production. In 1980 it was revived Off-Broadway in slightly more expensively-mounted form as Alice in Concert, winning Streep a Best Actress Obie Award. This TV-movie adaptation draws from the 1980 production, utilizing much of the original cast and substituting the show’s otherwise bare stage and contemporary street clothes with a mid-19th Century British Music Hall setting and sumptuously witty (and utilitarian) Victorian Era-inspired costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge (The Great Gatsby, The Eyes of Laura Mars, Annie). The era chosen being of particular significance, as Carroll's books, considered by many to be a sendup of Victorian rigidity, were written in 1865 - Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and 1871 -Through the Looking Glass.
The well-dressed ladies and gentlemen occupying the box at the Palace Theater
serve as the show's Greek Chorus

The period-appropriate setting of London's Victoria Palace Theater is the combined playground/performance space wherein Alice's surreal adventures in Wonderland are presented, vaudeville revue-style, in an eclectic and eccentric collage of song, dance, mime, poetry, and comedy. The amusing conceit of having Alice (whose traditional pinafore has been replaced by a pink bib jumper) as the unwitting star of an absurdist Music Hall revue neatly allows Swados' musicale to retain its deliberate theatrical structure. Meanwhile, the burlesque of Victorian-era shock and outrage enacted by the well-dressed members of the theater gallery in response to the show's musical anachronisms and hurlyburly format, is delightfully in keeping with the madness vs. sanity / reason vs. improbability themes of Lewis Carroll's book(s).

While Streep’s Alice remains consistently herself throughout (as much as a little girl who keeps growing and shrinking can be called consistent), members of the talented and versatile ensemble cast whimsically interpret the numerous denizens of Wonderland in imaginatively-staged numbers and skits that stubbornly refuse to recognize the laws of probability and time. The Dormouse sings country-western; Bill the Lizard is part of a barbershop sextet; the Lobster Quadrille is introduced by a Vegas-style lounge singer; the Caterpillar interrogation is an Indian raga; the Duchess’ baby jazz scats, à la Ella Fitzgerald; and Alice herself evokes the spirit of the 60s by serenading the Queen with a folk song.
Strumming her flamingo croquet mallet like a guitar, Streep does a killer Joan Baez impersonation
Given the combined elements of my general antipathy toward the source material, justified aversion to children's theater, and child-of-the-60s-related oversaturation anxiety regarding experimental theater of any kind; all signs point to Alice at the Palace being just the type of strenuously quirky entertainment that would have me scanning the room for exits and plotting escape routes in my head. But, miracle of miracles, Alice at the Palace stays on the bonus side of that gossamer-thin veil that separates the giddy lunacy of say, a Richard Lester movie or Monty Python skit, from the makes-you-want-to-set-your-hair-on-fire noxious cuteness of a Godspell or episode of The Monkees.
Maybe because the whimsy never feels arbitrary (even the illogical have a logic), or maybe because the cast of New York theater actors is so good they never once leave you unclear of what they are doing and where they are headed; but all the elements work seamlessly concert and create an imaginative, child's-eye-view of Wonderland unlike any I've ever seen*

*(In reviewing Alice in Concert, critic John Simon made reference to similarities to a theater of the absurd production of Alice in Wonderland mounted by Andre Gregory [of My Dinner with Andre fame] in 1970 though his Manhattan Project theater company.)
Since I’ve always felt that Alice in Wonderland was less an actual story than a series of bizarre conjoined encounters, Alice at the Palace resonated with me from the start because it appeared at last, someone (in this instance, the show’s creator Elizabeth Swados and director Emile Ardolino of Dirty Dancing and Sister Act), had lit upon a mode of adapting Carroll’s disjointed children’s verse complimentary to the book’s episodic, anarchic structure. 

In spite of the boundless possibilities presented by special effects, film has a literal quality about it that imposes a realism that can prove problematic when dealing with a fantasy centered on conceptual thinking, wordplay, and modes of perception. 
Certainly a device as theatrical as having a then 31-year-old Meryl Streep portray a 7 ½ -year-old could never work in even the most CGI heavy film unless, as in the Tom Hanks film, Big (1988), the discrepancy is noted. (Imagine The Wiz with 33-year-old Diana Ross playing Dorothy as an actual child!).
The willing suspension of disbelief and casual acceptance of visible artifice that’s part of the live theater experience makes the stage-bound gimmicks of Alice at the Palace (at varying intervals the camera places us onstage, in the wings, or in the audience) feel like a visual extension of Wonderland’s twisted, “Who am I now?” perspective. Similarly, the traditional vaudeville ritual of raising the curtain or lowering the scrim to signal the shift from one unconnected variety act to another is a cunning contrivance that actually brings a kind of disjointed order to Alice’s otherwise anecdotic odyssey.
Alice  receives her first crown

But best of all, something about the particulars of this production - from concept to execution - seized my imagination and touched my heart in precisely the ways Carroll's books proved incapable. For the first time, Alice’s adventures struck me as ultimately very moving and comprised of more than just a series of poetically expressed academic postulates. The details and performance subtleties of Streep, who uncannily captures the restless fidgety energy of a child, brings to the forefront Alice’s inner journey. A journey that takes her from feckless child who looks out at the world through smugly assumptive eyes, to one who learns to look for the beauty in everything, big and small. She also learns that "fabulous monsters" come in all forms, whether they be unicorns, scary Jabberwocks, or beautiful Red Queens. 
Debbie Allen as The Red Queen
"You may think that I'm an ogre, I am just the queen-next-door.
I simply have an ax instead of a cup of sugar."

The racial inclusion of the cast of Alice at the Palace stands in stark and refreshing contrast to the bafflingly all-white cast of Streep's latest musical venture, Rob Marshall's otherwise excellent adaptation of Stephens Sondheim's Into The Woods (2014). There's something Wonderlandish in the inherent contradiction of devotees of fairy tales and fantasy not having minds expansive enough to embrace inclusiveness.

I saw Alice at the Palace when it aired back in ’82, and for the longest time the only version I had was the fuzzy VHS copy I made (complete with James Garner, Mariette Hartley Polaroid commercials) that eventually warped and broke from overplaying. Seriously, I just fell in love with this show. I’ve seen it so often I know the score by heart. Anyhow, it was finally released on DVD in 2002, and while no manner of digital magic can remove that murky, low-tech, 80s-music-video look, it’s been nothing sort of great revisiting this show and enjoying a singing and dancing Meryl Streep two decades before she became the go-to diva of movie musicals.
The Mad Tea Party
Meryl Streep as Alice, Richard Cox (Cruising) as the Hatter, Michael Jeter (Picket Fences) as the Dormouse, and Mark Linn-Baker as the March Hare

If I've given the impression so far that Alice at the Palace as one of those sure-fire entertainments ranking among the most accessible of crowd-pleasers from Walt Disney or Rodgers & Hammerstein, let me correct that. Alice at the Palace is quite the opposite of a crowd-pleaser. In fact, it’s something of a hard sell.
As much as I’m blown away by Streep’s genius, the charm of the supporting cast, the cleverness of the music, and the poetic sweetness of the show itself (OK, it’s long been established that I’m a major softie, but the ending still moves me to waterworks after all these years); a good many people find the show singularly resistible. For years I've tried to get friends to watch it with me, but not a single person (including my partner whose tastes are similar to my own to the point of comedy) has been able to make it past more than the first half-hour.
Betty Aberlin (Lady Aberlin of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood)
vamps the Mock Turtle (Mark Linn-Baker) in full lounge singer mode. She also appears as Alice's sister, Edith. 
I don’t believe this has anything to do with it being too esoteric or impenetrable, it’s merely that such a non-traditional approach to such familiar material is bound not to be everyone’s Mad Tea Party. The droll and often lovely songs, incorporating a great deal of Lewis Carroll’s text, are not what you’d call hummable; the choreography by Graciela Daniele (The Pirates of Penzance, Everyone Says I Love You) is mostly of the “movement for non-dancers” stripe; and the avant-garde characterizations are apt to strike some as precious.

But, speaking entirely for myself and my own taste, one of the reasons Alice at the Palace is such a delight for me (and why I think so many other adaptations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland have failed) is because an absurdist, nonsensical book cries out for an absurdist, nonsensical interpretation. Not the affected, eccentricity-without-substance of Tim Burton’s Alice, but a lopsided logic in tune with that of the book. Alice at the Palace makes Lewis Carroll's words and characters soar off the page and come to life.
Get the feeling they weren't really trying too hard with this TV Guide ad?
There’s no getting past the fact that the miracle that is Meryl Streep is Alice at the Palace’s most valuable player. As excellent as the show and everyone else in the cast is, I can’t imagine it without her. At the time of this broadcast, Streep was just hitting her stride as a major star. She’d already won her first Emmy (Holocaust), first Oscar (Kramer vs Kramer), and two Golden Globes (Kramer vs Kramer and The French Lieutenant’s Woman). Indeed, a sure indicator of the scope of her success was the groundswell of critical and public backlash that began to build around this time. The complaint was that she was too technical, too serious, and too fond of accents.
Mark Linn-Baker is a standout in the multiple roles of White Rabbit, March Hare, Mock Turtle, and here, the White Knight.
Four years later he would find television success as the star of the sitcom Perfect Strangers
Meryl Streep was not only a serious actress, she was a HEAVY serious actress. No one went to a Meryl Streep movie expecting a good time. She was solid, she was thoughtful, and she was deep. And in every film you knew she was going to cry at least once...or twice...OK, a lot. I don’t know what the press reaction to Alice at the Palace when it aired, but as a Streep fan who saw her for the first time in The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979) and instantly fell in love, my reaction must have been on par with those 30s audiences who saw Garbo laugh in Ninotchka.

Those who only know Streep post-Mamma Mia have absolutely no idea what a shock it was to find out this deathly serious actress could be so funny! Silly, in fact...and she could sing, too! Hers is an animated, committed performance of near-constant surprises. She's extraordinary and a great deal of fun to watch (no surprise there). However, when taking in her loose, very physical performance, it helps to keep in mind she's playing a 7 ½ -year-old. You forget that and you're likely to think Streep has been taking a few hits off the Caterpillar's hookah.
Who Are You?
Alice meets the Caterpillar 

Fan of musicals and fantasy that I am, these are a few of my favorite numbers:
The Queens' Examination/Alice's Dinner Party
Goodbye Feet
An ever-growing Alice has to bid her tootsies adieu
The Red Queen (Off With Their Heads)
Debbie Allen is electric as the temperamental queen.
The first episode of  her TV show, Fame, had aired just a week before.
What There Is
This beautiful duet by Streep and the remarkable Rodney Hudson is based on a poem by David Patchen. It's perhaps my favorite number in the entire show (cue the waterworks).

My enjoyment of Alice at the Palace inspired me to reread both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and I've since come to have grown very fond of them both.
Queen Alice
Having grown from her adventures, Alice receives her second crown with more serenity 

The books feel somehow enriched by what I've gleaned from Elizabeth Swados' production, while my heightened awareness of the poetry in Carroll's words, the tenderness behind the intellect, the lessons in the parables, makes viewing the TV movie an even more rewarding experience than when first I discovered it so many years ago.

So, in effect, the opening sentence of this post is something of a misdirection and isn't really what it seems. Curious, that. 
A-l-i-c-e  P-l-e-a-s-a-n-c-e  L-i-d-d-e-l-l

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2015

Thursday, March 12, 2015


Warning: Spoilers, spoilers, everywhere! Only read if you have seen the film!

The late William Castle, schlock horror showman extraordinaire (The Tingler, Strait-Jacket, The House on Haunted Hill), wasn't a bad director so much as an artless one. His pedestrian, TV-bland style of moviemakingif the word "style" can be used to describe merely pointing the camera at whoever is speaking and making sure it's in focusflattened and benumbed the performances of his actors and tended to drain the life out of the otherwise intriguingly bizarre narratives that were his latter-career métier. In fact, the sole mitigating factor distinguishing William Castle's films from the formulaic, workaday B-movie mediocrity of, say, Roger Corman was the sense that lurking somewhere beneath William Castle's bland, middle-class nice-guy countenance was someone with a perverse, almost John Waters-like predilection for the grotesque and downright weird.

Unpretentious in the extreme (none of Castle's films give the impression of aspiring to anything darker than the good-natured "Boo!" shouted in the dark), and with nary a subconscious demon to exorcise, Castle was a seemingly decent man who was more a gifted showman than deep-thinker. But he is also a very ambitious man. A man inarguably more overburdened with self-confidence than artistic vision. Castle built his career on the imitation/emulation of his idols, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. But Castle's crude, over-simplistic approach to his material revealed that he lacked the aesthetics and innate vulgarity necessary to be a truly interesting filmmaker.
As fate would have it, William Castle, through sheer huckster's bravado and none of the genius, actually managed to carve out a more prolific producing/directing career than former colleague Orson Welles (Castle served as associate producer on The Lady from Shanghai). And in a twist worthy of O. Henry, after years of dogging Alfred Hitchcock's footsteps like an admiring, less-gifted little brother, the public taste pendulum had swung to such a corkscrew angle that it was eventually Hitchcock who wound up being the copycat: borrowing William Castle's low-budget/heavy-hype style for 1960s Psycho.

And while it must be said that both Castle and Hitchcock are principally beholden to Henri-Georges Clouzot for his 1955 horror classic Les Diaboliques (whose final frame beseeches audience members not to be diabolical and reveal the film's surprise ending to friends), Psycho's then-groundbreaking "No one will be admitted after the film starts" screening gimmick was a page lifted straight out of the William Castle hoopla handbook.
Which brings us to Homicidal, a clear case of "Who's copying whom?"
Joan Marshall as Emily
Glenn Corbett as Karl Anderson
Patricia Breslin as Miriam Webster
Jean Arless as Warren Webster
Euginie Leontovich as Helga Swenson
Richard Rust as Jim Nesbitt
Alan Bruce as Dr. Jonas
William Castle had slogged away for years, churning out crime programmers and private eye 2nd features before ultimately achieving moderate notoriety and success (if not respectability) in the Drive-In/Saturday Matinee horror circuit. Thus, it must have really burned his biscuits when a slumming Alfred Hitchcock came along with the critically and publicly well-received Psycho, fairly beating Castle at his own game and emerging with his A-list reputation not only intact but reinforced. The horror gauntlet had been thrown down. Castle had no choice but to prove that he was still a game player in a field he'd heretofore had all to himself.

Homicidal is basically Psycho-lite: all the sturm with none of the drang. It's a largely inept, ergo wildly entertaining homage/rip-off of only the most superficial of Psycho's exploitation-worthy plot points and identifiable Hitchcock templates. All served up with William Castle's trademark bargain-basement theatrics and nonexistent visual style.

A sure-footed director like Hitchcock can afford to string his audience along for nearly fifty minutes before unleashing the big shocker moment. William Castle, not so much.
After an intriguing but amateurishly-executed prologue set in 1948 wherein a little boy enters a playroom and swipes a doll from a little girl who's no Margaret O'Brien in the crying department, Homicidal jumps to the present-day and embarks on the film's one genuinely effective suspense setpiece, a protracted sequence in which an icy "Hitchcock blonde" buys a wedding ring, rents a hotel room, and offers a bellboy $2,000 to marry her on September 6th, the wedding to be annulled immediately after. All this leading up to Homicidal's big shocker moment: a brutal knife attack. All probably quite shocking for 1961, but the best that can be said for it now is that it matches in unintentional laughs what Psycho's shower sequence provided in screams.
From setup to dénouement, the sequence clocks in at a brisk fifteen minutes, and, primed as we are with apprehension by the non-stop allusions to Psycho and our own piqued curiosity over the cryptic behavior of the woman, Homicidal begins on a fairly suspenseful high note. A note conspicuously lacking once the story proper kicks in.

After an extended stay in Denmark (!), odd-looking Warren Webster, the androgynous, slim-hipped heir with the $10 million overbite, returns to his family home in Solvang, California, to claim his due inheritance on the occasion of his fast-approaching 21st birthday. 
In tow are Helga, Warren's childhood nurse and guardian following the death of his parents, now a mute invalid after suffering a stroke, and Emily, Helga's striking but equally odd-looking nurse of mysterious origin and whiplash mood swings. Emily, whose manner is as stiff and brittle as her severe blond flip hairdo with fringe bangs, shares an ambiguous relationship with Warren (Friend? Companion? Wife?), which rouses the genteel suspicions of his half-sister with the dictionary name Miriam Webster. Nurse Emily meanwhile tries to rouse more than just suspicions (if you get my cruder meaning) of Karl, Miriam's square, square-jawed sweetheart who at one time was Warren's childhood bully-for-pay playmate. (Fearing his son not masculine enough, Warren's screwball of a father paid Karl to engage Warren in fistfights).

Faster than you can say, "We all go a little mad sometimes," local outbreaks of assault, vandalism, and long-winded elder abuse alert authorities of a possible connection to the stabbing murder that opened the film. A link tied to Warren, his inheritance, and all those around him who may or may not be exactly as they seem.
Emily having a particularly trying day.
Written by William Castle's frequent collaborator Robb White (Macabre, 13 Ghosts), Homicidal has the makings of a reasonably decent thriller, its potential submarined by the inadequacy of its particulars. Happily, for all us lovers of camp, William Castle's carnival barker instincts as a director never allow the film's wan performances, risible dialog, and dry criminal procedural to distract from what are obviously his foremost points of interest: Homicidal's two gimmicky hooks. 
There's the gimmick he could openly promote: the one-minute "Fright Break," which stopped the film and allowed audience members too frightened to see the finale an opportunity to flee the theater and get their money back (but only after suffering the indignity of sitting in the "Coward's Corner" in the lobby). Then there's the "surprise" gimmick which raises the stakes of Psycho's cross-dressing twist, pulls a Christine Jorgensen reversal, and introduces movie audiences (a first?) to the "Ripped from today's headlines!" sensationalism of gender reassignment surgery.
William Castle assigned TV actress Joan Marshall the gender-neutral name of
Jean Arless to better conceal Homicidal's twist ending

William Castle was responsible for some of the oddest films to come out of the '50s and '60s. When they were silly, essentially one-note genre programmers like The Tingler, Castle's barely-above-average B-movie skills were a perfect match for the minimal demands of both the audience and the stories themselves. But as Paramount head of production, Robert Evans knew when he wrested Rosemary's Baby from Castle and handed it over to Roman Polanski; Castle's uninspired directing style is woefully ill-suited to anything requiring an understanding of things like editing, pacing, composition, the building of suspense, and the appropriate application of a music score. Homicidal is no Rosemary's Baby, but its compellingly preposterous plot is not without its appeal. That is, disregarding the obvious handicap of Robb White's terrible dialogue:

"Warren, what do you really know about her?"
"What do we really know about anybody?"

Homicidal cries out for a director with more creative ingenuity and a willingness to go to some of the darker corners of its twisted plot than Castle could muster.
I can't vouch for how all this played for '60s audiences (alarmingly, Time Magazine placed it on its list of Top 10 films of 1961). But behind some of the pleasure I take in laughing at Homicidal's excesses and liabilities, there's the nagging frustration born of an opportunity lost and potential squandered.
Emily's strong response to children and the topic of marriage is only vaguely addressed 

If you're gonna rip off Psycho and need a gimmick to pull it off, you'd be hard-pressed to find one as effective as the Warren/Emily gambit. Why? Because it's a gimmick that works even when it doesn't work.
The first time I saw Homicidal was when it aired on one of those weekend "Creature Feature" horror movie TV programs in my early teens. I was unfamiliar with the plot then, but right from the start, one thing stood out: there was something really strange about the actors playing Emily and Warren. Emily seemed carved out of wood, so angular were her striking features. And what with her stilted manner of speech and rigid carriage, she came across like some alien being trying to approximate human behavior. (Actress Joanna Frank achieved a similar quality when she played a queen bee in human form in "Zzzz," my absolute favorite episode of the TV program The Outer Limits).
Something about Miriam brings out the full-throttle biotch in Emily

Warren was downright eerie with his odd, immobile features and that robotic, disembodied dubbed voice. I knew there was something "off" about this pair and never once thought the roles were played by different actors. But having grown up on Some Like it Hot, Uncle Miltie, and a particularly disturbing episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour titled The Unlocked Window, I immediately assumed female impersonation was the gimmick and that Warren was an actor playing a dual role. I was genuinely surprised to learn that it was a woman engaged in the cross-dressing.

The exceptional thing about Joan Marshalland you'll never convince me of this being an intentional acting choice on her partis that whether dressed as a man or woman, what's compelling about her is that she never comes across as entirely "human" whatever the gender. Hers is such a disorienting, androgynous presence; she (and the brilliant work of makeup artist Ben Lane) single-handedly imbue Homicidal with the surreal, creepy vibe William Castle nearly buries under his bromidic guidance.
(As further proof of the enduring effectiveness of this gambit, as recently as a year ago, my partner watched Homicidal for the first time, and he too thought it was a male actor playing the roles of Warren and Emily.)

Actress Joan Marshall is absolutely the best thing about Homicidal and the only reason I can still watch the film. Her campy performance may not be "good" by conventional standards (we're talking a William Castle film here), but in every aspect, it is oh, so "right."
In a cast of yawn-inducingly ordinary actors giving by-the-numbers performances, Marshall comes off as an arch drag queen in her Emily persona (she's like a proto-Coco Peru), and her Warren reminds me of Ron Reagan Jr. (only with charisma). 

I'd read somewhere that Raquel Welch had wanted to play both Myra and Myron in Myra Breckinridge, and actress Sally Kellerman sought the same in the stage version of Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy DeanInteresting ideas that make me think about how those roles rely on a degree of inflexible gender presentation. I remember many years ago when I saw Julie Andrews in Victor, Victoria, and came away thinking she was never very convincing to me as a man. Part of this was due to Andrews' limited range, to be sure. But it also had to do with the stereotypical gender signifiers I came to the movie with. I never asked myself, "What is a man SUPPOSED to look like?"...ironically, a question built into the film's themes. 
In Homicidal, Marshall may make a weird-looking man. But for the purpose of the movie's plot (the characters in the film have to unquestioningly accept her as a male), her impersonation is wholly successful, as she pretty much looks like any member of your average '80s punk band.
Handsome Glenn Corbett, in Homicidal's equivalent of the John Gavin role in Psycho, isn't given an opportunity to make much of an impression. Perhaps his photo from his early days as a physique model (circa 1955) will help to rectify that.

What a difference a year makes. Psycho came out in 1960, and fast on its heels in 1961 came Homicidal. There's always been a thin line between homage, inspired-by, borrowed from, and just plain ripped-off, but Homicidal owes so much to Psycho, were the film made today, Castle would likely have to split his profits with Hitchcock. Here are a few of the most glaring similarities. Fittingly, the Psycho images are first.

                                                         Location Identification

The Fugitive Kind: Janet Leigh and Joan Marshall on the lam

Psycho's Laurene Tuttle & John McIntire in roles (and robes) similar to those later 
occupied by James Westerfield and Hope Summers 

Martin Balsam and Patricia Breslin apprehensively climb the stairs
John Gavin unmasks and subdues Anthony Perkins,
Alan Bruce performs the same duties for Joan Marshall

I don't know whether William Castle intended to mask his shortcomings as a director behind distracting gimmicks and promotional ploys or merely use those devices to make a name for himself as an independent filmmaker during a time when the major studios dominated the marketplace. Whichever the reason, the fact remains that Castle succeededlimitations and allwhere many more talented and better-financed directors failed: he made entertaining movies and movies that endured. My personal favorites, Strait-Jacket, The Tingler, I Saw What You Did, and Homicidal, are more innocent than ominous. But they guarantee viewers a good time at the ironic good time, perhaps, but a good time nonetheless.
Joan Marshall appeared on many TV shows (many available on YouTube) before making her "debut" as Jean Arless in Homicidal. She married director Hal Ashby (Being There, Harold & Maude) in 1970. Both she and William Castle appear in Ashby's 1975 film, Shampoo, rumored to be based, at least in part, on aspects of her life (for example, Tony Bill's character is said to be based on her brother). Although their marriage was troubled, Marshall remained married to Ashby until his death in 1988. She passed away in 1992.
Walking past a seated Warren Beatty, Joan Marshall as she appears in 1975's Shampoo

Joan Marshall stars in this 1964 unaired pilot for The Munsters. Network execs thought Marshall's Phoebe Minster (changed to Lily Munster when cast with Yvonne De Carlo) bore too close a resemblance to The Addams Family's Morticia.

This is The Fright Break! You hear that sound? It's the sound of a heartbeat. A frightened, terrified heart. Is it beating faster than your heart or slower? This heart is going to beat for another twenty-five seconds to allow anyone to leave this theater who is too frightened to see the end of the picture. Ten seconds more and we go into the house! It's now or never!
Five..four... You're a brave audience!

Copyright © Ken Anderson    2009 - 2015

Monday, March 2, 2015


“Life is never quite interesting enough, somehow. You people who come to the movies know that.”                                                            Dolly Gallagher Levi - The Matchmaker

Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is a (melo)dramatization of what can happen to lives when the consoling balm of idol worship (movie or otherwise) becomes a crutch for self-delusion, avoidance, and the denial of truth.

As anyone knows who has spent more than five minutes at an autograph convention; attended a pro sporting event; visited Comic-Con; stood among the glassy-eyed throngs outside a movie premiere; or navigated the choppy waters of an internet fansite chat room (a drama-queen war zone littered with trolling land mines): fame-culture idol worship and devout religious fanaticism are merely different sides of the same coin.

Life presents us with challenges and can sometimes feel like a cruel, dispiriting, achingly lonely place. In those moments when we feel its sting most keenly, it’s natural to seek solace (and sometimes escape) in the arts: that spiritual oasis of inspiration and beauty that has the power to restore hope to the human soul the way rainfall can restore life to the scorched, arid plains of a drought-plagued Texas town.
But all too often the need to salve the pain of life and fill the void of loneliness through external means (as opposed to, say, self-reflection and action) leads to the quick-fix distraction of fame culture. Fame culture being the existential bait-and-switch that says our personal lives can somehow be enriched through the over-idealization of someone else’s. Particularly the lives of those perfect demigods and goddesses of the silver screen.
Fame culture doesn’t speak to the individual who works to fulfill his/her potential through the inspirational example set by the genius and talent of others. Fame culture merely requires one to surrender the concerns of one's own existence to the enthralled pursuit of information about, and preoccupation with, the comings and goings of the rich and famous. Such passive fealty is rewarded with the blessed gift of never having to think for a second about one's own life, one's own concerns, or anything remotely connected to what is real and germane to one's life. As questionable a tradeoff as this seems, it represents the absolute cornerstone of what we jokingly refer to as pop culture.
Believing is so funny, isn’t it? When what you believe in doesn’t even know you exist.”

Entire television networks and charitably 85% of the internet are devoted to feeding us ‘round-the-clock updates on what celebrities are up to. Celebrities whose careers and personal lives are staunchly and vigilantly defended against slander and attack by legions of devoted fans. Fandom of the sort that leads to cyber-bullying, broken friendships, and in extreme cases, death threats.
All rather sad when faced with the reality that celebrities by and large go about the business of living their lives grateful for, yet blithely unaware of, said fans’ existence (That is, outside of the hefty dollars fan devotion brings to their bank accounts. Money that enables themirony of ironiesto build stronger fortresses, hire more bodyguards, and enforce stricter security…all the better to keep fans at arm's length.)

 “‘Cause growing up is awfuller than all the awful things that ever were."    - Peter Pan  

The desire to lose oneself/find oneself in the idealized illusion of salvation presented by the arts and fame culture is something most keenly felt in adolescence. Adolescence being the time when, in the immortal words of The Facts of Life theme song: “The world never seems to be living up to your dreams.”  Celebrity worship allows for the kind of escapism that can make the bullied and isolated feel less like outsiders and misfits, providing as it does an outlet for pent-up emotional release. At its best, the idolization of the famous can be a catalyst for change and growth; at its worst, fame idolatry can be such an effective pain reliever that it encourages avoidance, inhibits emotional growth, and promotes living in the past.
September 30, 1955
Members of the McCarthy, Texas James Dean Fan Club, The Disciples of James Dean,
react to news of the actor's death 

“Think what you can keep ignoring…”  Stephen Sondheim  -  Company 

Sandy Dennis as Mona
Cher as Sissy
Karen Black as Joanne
The year is 1975, and on the 20th anniversary of the death of James Dean, the last remaining members of The Disciples of James Dean (make that the last remaining interested members)a fan club that held its weekly meetings after hours in the local Woolworth’s 5 & Dimereturn to the drought-ridden, near-deserted, West Texas town of McCarthy for a reunion.
Still residing in McCarthy in various states of arrested development are: moralistic bible-thumper Juanita (Sudie Bond), who inherited the 5 & Dime after her husband died; goodtime girl Sissy (Cher), “The best roller-skater in all of West Texas” and over-proud owner of the biggest boobs in town; and Mona (Dennis), James Dean fan club leader and lifetime Woolworth employee whose preeminent moment in life was being chosen as an extra in the film Giant (although no one has ever been able to find her in the film), and who lays claim to being the mother of James Dean’s only son.
Kathy Bates as Stella Mae

The only out-of-town attendees are boisterous Stella Mae (Kathy Bates), now the wife of a Dallas oil millionaire, and mousy Edna Louise (Marta Heflin), pregnant with her 7th child and still, as she was in high school, ever on the receiving end of Stella Mae’s relentless verbal abuse.
Into this airless environment of stasis comes Joanne (a wonderfully reined-in Karen Black) playing a chaos device in a tailored suit; a woman-mysterious in a yellow Porsche (Dean died in a Porsche). In true Southern Gothic tradition, her presence incites the unearthing of secrets and the head-on confrontation of several dark and painful truths.
And as for the two Jimmy Deans of the title, they are less a titular redundancy than a reference to the two unseen Jimmy Deans of the tale. One is the Hollywood actor whose untimely death at age 24 assured him a place of cultish immortality; the other is Mona's twenty-year-old son Jimmy Dean Jr, a rebel with considerable cause. Both are the unseen male presence"ghosts" if you willwhich figure so prominently in Mona's delusions. Both make her feel special and give her life importance.
Marta Heflin as Edna Louise
As titles go, I was never too crazy about Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean which always reminded me too much of the unpleasant, similarly phrase-titled 1976 film When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? …which as it so happens, also had a diner setting. But I suppose it might also be a nod to Inge's Come Back Little Sheba and that play's similar theme of longing for an idealized past. But who cares about a title when you have Altman alumnae Sandy Dennis (That Cold Day in the Park) and Karen Black (Nashville) joined by pop star, tabloid queen, Cher returning to the big screen for the first time since her somnambulistic title-role performance in 1969s Chastity?

I saw Jimmy Dean when it was released in Los Angeles in the fall of 1982. The buzz at the time was that, on the heels of the flop trifecta of Quintet, A Perfect Couple, and HealtH (the latter I don’t recall even opening in LA), plus the off-beat oddity that was Popeye; Jimmy Dean was to be a return to 3 Women form for Altman. Filmed on a shoestring budget, shot on Super16mm and blown up to 35mm, in a year of bloated megafilms (ET, Annie, Tron) Jimmy Dean was small, personal, and idiosyncratically appealing (and oh so '70s) in its determination to be an anti-blockbuster.
Featuring the same cast as the film, Robert Altman mounted a much-ballyhooed Broadway production of Ed Graczyk's play early in 1982. The critics were not kind. The show closed after 52 performances. A week later the film version was underway and completed in 19 days.

Long before Carol Burnett’s hilarious “Eunice” character came along and forever altered my ability to take the genre completely seriously, I had been in love with Southern Gothic films. Adapted from the works of authors like Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, and William Inge, these extravagantly melodramatic films had their heyday in the sexually repressed climate of the '50s. Their crisis-filled storylines– all sex, secrets, lies, and hypocrisy–stylistically dramatizing the submerged conflicts and contradictions of an era obsessed with sex, yet rooted in oppressive Christian dogma and the sustained illusion of conformity at all costs.
Though initially drawn to the genre for its female-driven narratives and the camp potential of the traditionally overheated performances; I eventually came to appreciate the subtle queer coding concealed in so many of the stories related to isolated individuals struggling to find love and self-acceptance in environments unsympathetic to anyone not fitting in with the mainstream.
Making his film debut as Joseph Qualley, a teen bullied for dressing up in women's clothes,
openly gay actor Mark Patton (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2) was a real-life victim of bullying
growing up in his hometown of Riverside, Mo.

Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean may not be true Southern Gothic per se, but it has all the trappings. It’s got ponderous themes (Is the entire world just a deserted dustbowl full of pitiful souls trying to give our lives meaning by worshiping gods that don’t even know we exist?); weighty symbolism (Reata, the palatial mansion in Giant, is, like so many of the characters at the 5 & Dime, only a false façade); religious allegory (Mona's assertion that she was "chosen" to bring Dean's only son into the world); and a steady stream of tearful disclosures and shocking revelations done to a fare-thee-well by a cast to die for.
"Miracle Whip is poetry, mayonnaise isn't."
Robert Altman defending one of the improvised changes he imposed upon Graczyk's screenplay.
Sudie Bond as Juanita 

In his book, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, late film critic Robin Wood makes an interesting point about how often the best of Robert Altman’s films are those expressing the female (if not necessarily feminist) perspective. I’d have to agree. Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean makes a superb companion piece to 3 Women: the former being a study, in reality, imposing itself upon the guarded illusions of women with nothing to cling to but the dreams of the past; the latter a kind of magic-realist exercise in which fantasy and wish-fulfillment come to erode the personalities of three dissimilar women.
While I've always had a little problem with the actual screenplay for Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (five major epiphanies in one afternoon seems a tad crowded even for a 20-year reunion), I have nothing but praise for the stellar performances, the film's themes, and Altman's sensitive and thoughtful direction. This movie is a MAJOR favorite.

Curious that it took the formulaic, “high-concept” Hollywood of the 1980s to unite my favorite iconoclast director with two of the most famously idiosyncratic actresses of the '70s. Much has been written about the mannered acting styles of Sandy Dennis and Karen Black. Still, in Jimmy Dean, the stark originality of these actresses rescues the film from the kind of Steel Magnolias down-home, southern-fried clichés Graczyk’s screenplay flirts so recklessly with.
As with so many Altman films, the performances here represent the best example of ensemble work; each character fleshed out in ways that make even the most theatrical contrivances of the plot feel genuine and emanate from a place of authenticity.

Deservedly so, Cher was singled out for a great deal of critical acclaim for her performance. After having become something of a tabloid punchline for the public soap opera that was her personal life, she amazed audiences by more than holding her own with several formidable seasoned professionals. Her relaxed, natural performance nicely offsets the more eccentric contributions of her costars (although Sudie Bond comes across as perhaps the most real of Graczyk's characters) and she is a delight to watch. Mike Nichols, after seeing her in the Broadway production, cast her opposite Meryl Streep in 1983s Silkwood

One of my favorite quotes is Bergen Evans’ “We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us. 
In Jimmy Dean, the past of 1955 and the present of 1975 play out simultaneously on opposite sides of mirrors situated behind the Woolworth’s soda fountain counter. Each side serving to illuminate and provide insight and counterpoint to the actions and motivations of the characters.
I’ve never seen a theatrical production of this film, but on the DVD commentary, the playwright says it was Altman’s idea (one he didn’t agree with) to have the same actors play their adult and 16-year-old selves. Maybe the decision isn’t true to Graczyk’s vision, but Altman’s idea makes for a marvelous visual commentary if you want to make a case for these characters never changing. Watching the youthful 1955 sequences played by the same mature actresses in the 1975 scenes reinforced for me the feeling that the seeds of what these characters would become have already taken root. It’s a creative choice that I think imbues Graczyk's sometimes overstressed plot points with real poignancy and poetry.
Maybe people don't change. Perhaps we just never saw who they really were. 

Robert Altman has often expressed a dislike of idol worship and fame culture, feeling it distracts people from looking at their own problems, and, like religion, encourages them not to think for themselves. It's certainly a theme he’s addressed before in his films (Nashville, Buffalo Bill & the Indians, HealtH, and The Player).
In a 1982 interview for New York Magazine, Robert Atman stated that one of the main reasons he was drawn to making Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was to counterbalance his 1957 documentary The James Dean Story: a sparse, nonsensationalistic look at the brief life of the actor that Altman felt was ultimately misunderstood and subverted into a work of hagiography by James Dean cultists.
Thanks to the internet, I finally saw that for-years-rumored-about nude photo of James Dean that figures in play as an item Stella Mae pays over $50 dollars for (Edna Louise: "Is that a tree branch in his hand, or what?"). I personally don't think the model in question looks much like James Dean at all, but I do love a good myth.

Altman’s adaptation of Graczyk’s play, which depicts the most devout of Dean’s worshippers as an intensely unbalanced woman coping with the emptiness of her existence by shrouding herself in an elaborate delusion, does indeed stand in stark contrast to the harmless, romanticized view of fandom promoted by the media and so-called entertainment news. 

But what I found most provocative and what gave me the most food for thought in Jimmy Dean is how ingeniously it dramatized the two-way mirror effect of idol worship.
One side of the mirror is idealized fantasy, the other is reality. The idealized side is the side we project ourselves into when we escape into movies or obsess over the lives of celebrities. There, time is frozen. We don’t have to grow up, and the only risk is that it can become a time-stealing distraction.
The reality side of the mirror offers nothing but the naked lightbulb of having to look clearly at ourselves and our lives. Tragedy is when the world of dreams becomes so compelling to us, reality starts to pale in comparison. Salvation comes through the realization that it is only on the reality side of the mirror where genuine happiness and fulfillment is possible.
Altman may have disliked celebrity culture, but idol worship (in the form of the standing-room-only throngs crammed into the Martin Beck Theater to see Cher's legit stage debut)
played a huge role in the theatrical production even making it to 52 performances

Like a great many gay men of my generation who grew up feeling isolated and misunderstood, movies were my solace, escape, salvation, and inspiration. I grew up loving movies and movie stars, and, as the title of this blog asserts, they were the stuff to inspire dreams. I was one of the lucky ones in that I didn’t lose myself in my love of movies (well, not completely) and that my own pop cultural obsession (Xanadu…yes, THAT Xanadu) altered the course of my life and led me to a profession which has been more fulfilling to me than I ever could have imagined.

Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is a reminder that the arts are here to help us better cope with life, not retreat from it.

Sandy Dennis' character in this film claims that her child is the son of James Dean. In the 2007 documentary Confessions of a Superhero, Christopher Dennis, a wannabe actor who dresses as Superman for tips in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, claims to be the secret son of Sandy Dennis.

Robert Altman's documentary: The James Dean Story (1957) on YouTube.

Cher actually made her feature film debut playing herself opposite Sonny Bono in the musical comedy spoof, Good Times - 1967 (it's also director William Friedkin's first film, and is in its own way, every bit as terrifying as The Exorcist). In 1969 with a script by Bono, Cher made her dramatic acting debut in ChastityA film in which she plays a hippie drifter with one facial expression. Both are available on YouTube and are prime examples of late-60s cinema.

The DVD of Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean has as its only extra feature, a great, many-axes-to-grind interview with playwright Ed Graczyk, who. while respectful, clearly did not relish working with Robert Altman. Like listening to an embittered Paul Morrissey griping about how Andy Warhol got all the credit for the films he directed, Graczyk seems loath to extend any gratitude to Altman for his part in making Jimmy Dean the playwright's most well-known play. Instead, he devotes considerable time detailing (in admittedly enjoyable behind-the-scenes anecdotes) the many ways in which Altman deviated from his original concept.

The Disciples of James Dean - 1955
James Dean is the perfect pop culture icon. A figure of idolatry who didn't live long enough to
disappoint, disillusion, or age (in other words, seem human). Like all gods, he remains forever unchanged in a state of youthful perfection, 

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009  - 2015